Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Issue of Originality

I think it's safe to say that many of today's novels aren't very original.

There's as many vampire novels as there are sands on the seashore, and even more prairie/Amish romances. (Insert a shudder here.) End times novels, well, there's lots of those too. A well-known specific example of today's not-so-cutting-edge literature would be the popular Inheritance Trilogy (the first book being "Eragon") which manages to rip off of Star Wars in plot and Lord of the Rings in everything else. (Inheritance fans, take no offense. There are admirable things about those books, and downfalls as well, as there are with all books.)

There are original elements in all of these stories, but the basic premise, when you boil it down and take away the externals, often comes out the same. An ordinary person discovers he or she has special powers is one obvious example, taken by Star Wars, Harry Potter, Eragon, and a whole lot of other books.

That doesn't mean these premises are bad. In fact, done right, they could very well be good. However, and note this, it's a LOT harder to write an original story with a used premise than it is to write an original story with an original premise. Why? Because we actually copy the books we've read before, whether we mean to or not. If I wrote a prairie romance novel (horror!), and I had read a lot of prairie romances, then what will happen? My own novel will turn out a lot like those other prairie romances.

Once stories are in our heads, they tend to influence how we write. This is shown (positively) by the famous writer's creed, "Read good books to write good books." So if we read a book in a certain genre, and we write a book in that same genre, then the chances are, our book will look a lot like that book. We subconsciously try to emulate the books we admire.

So how do we get out of this? It's something that's been plaguing me lately, because I realized that I've been trying to copy other novels without even knowing it. In fact, I came to a rather painful conclusion a few days ago while cross-examining my own writing: The Prophecies, which is one of my works-in-progress, is painfully unoriginal in premise. To put it bluntly, it's yet another book in which

1) there is a renamed version of Satan that's trying to take over this country. It's something that's been worn out in Christian literature. (see: Batson's The Door Within, Hopper's White Lion Chronicles, Graham's Binding of the Blade, etc.)

 2) God (likewise renamed) raises up a champion-like character to warn this country (somewhat less widespread, but still common)

 3) Oh, and there's a renamed Bible too—and some silly kings who don't know how to listen.

Worse still, the general premise of The Book of Shaldu, the first book, is almost frighteningly similar to the premise of Rise of the Wyrm Lord. There are differences, but it's still too close for comfort. (For example: there is the Wyrm Lord, a dragon-like thing, and the Daske, also a giant serpentine/dragon character. Both Satan figures in both books want to free that character from its imprisionment and thus dominate everything. The difference is, the race to find the evil serpentine character is not the goal of the story in ROTWL, whereas it takes center stage in The Book of Shaldu about a third of the way in.)

Now I'm faced with a decision to do one of three things: either stop the series altogether and forget about it, finish the series and rewrite it heavily, or take the best characters, scenes, and subplots of the book and deposit them in another book sometime in the future. I've never done the latter, but some of the dialogue and characters of the series are too wonderful to give up.

However, I've kind of gone off track from the original question: how do we truly be original when we write?

Here some stuff I've figured out, but feel free to voice your opinion, too.

1) Don't try to copy!

So you're thinking, "No, duh." Stick with me. It's less obvious than it sounds.

I have a really bad habit. It got me into writing, but it's getting me into trouble: I read a book and say, "I want to write this kind of book." So then I figure out how I can put a new twist on something that was in the book and stick it in my own writing.

Bad idea. Very bad idea.

So say I want people to talk with their minds (another worn-out concept), so I put a bit of a twist on it, rename it, and poof! It looks nice on the outside, but it's just another copied idea once you get into it.

Not only does this promote unoriginal thinking, it just doesn't feel right to the reader. I love reading original books because they feel fresh and new. A good premise sends shivers down my spine. It's like the promise of a banquet, and you're counting down the minutes. A new way of telling a story makes every page a delight.

Originality is appealing to the reader. A motley collection of borrowed ideas is not.

2) Write what you know.

Writers' creeds strike again. How many times have you heard that one? Nevertheless, it's true. If we're not trying to go off of someone else's ideas, where do we start?

Well, there are occurrences where we are zapped with inspiration from above. But most of the time, writing is gritty down-to-earth work, and not terribly inspired.

So we write what we know. You are a unique person, with a set of experiences that no one else has. Take what you know, what seems ordinary to you, and integrate it into your story.

Sometimes "knowing" something requires world-building. How can you write in a world you know nothing about? It's like trying to write a novel on Mexico without even researching Mexico, much less visiting it. Mark Twain is famous for writing things people knew, such as childhood in the West, and writing it so well that people who had never set eyes on Missouri could see that experience was talking, not imagination. They could see everything that was happening.

In the same way, we have our own experiences: so can we not use them to write something no one else could write?

So what do you think? What are some ways we can best unoriginality and write stories that will crackle with fresh and new tales? I'd love to hear what you think.


Pathfinder said...

Heh. That's what I was thinking about at 6:50 this morning. "Should I drop my novel and start something else (again), or should I just cut the clichè plot and characters, or... wait. Is there a difference? Blast."

Short stories and poems rule.

Writer4Christ said...

This is so so so so true!!! :( And sad.... because there are so many plots from so many books I've read that I so so so so so so wanted to put in my books(Inkheart, Chronicles of Narnia etc.) because they are awesome. But I don't want to scrap my series because it is so good!
And it is so different too. We can't help but write things that we have read. Nothing is original(or so I've read on the web), except when we write what we know...
Some authors tell us to take something from books we read if we really love it.
I don't think there can be originality anymore because everything has already been written, or so someone said, in one way or another. It is like music. So many melodies but only so many notes. I don't think we should throw away our writings just because it isn't original.
Look for the ways that it is original, and you may be surprised.

Star-Dreamer said...

Yes, yes, and yes. I've done a lot of that. It's hard to work on something original, that is for sure.

The interesting thing for me is that when I started writing, things like friendly dragons and mind speaking were completely original to me... I'm not saying they weren't done before, but when I started writing I had no idea that they'd been done before. I'd just barely started into the fantasy genre, and I thought I was doing something that no one else had ever tried.

The truth of matter is that you can never be completely original. It just can't be done. It can't... unless you are God, and obviously none of us are. What you can do, however, is try to be yourself. I know that sounds cliche, but it's true. If you infuse yourself deeply into your writings, rather than try to write like someone else, your story will come out unique. Even if the premise is similar to something else, even if there are close similarities, even if, even if, even if... I think that's what made the inheritance cycle so alluring. Yes, it had quite a few similarities to star wars and Lord of the Rings, but the author was not trying to copy those stories outright... it was after the fact that people noticed the similarities and were upset about them. I'll bet that when Mr. Paolini wrote those books he wasn't thinking "Ha! I'm going to make the bad guy my MC's father just because they did it in star wars!" ;)

I had someone email me the other day because they read an excerpt of my story and were worried because they had a Daystar in their book too. They wondered if it would be a copyright issue, and if I would be willing to change the name of the Daystar in SOTD... the truth of the matter, however, was that our "Daystars" were completely different and had nothing similar to each other other than a name.

And on that note, some people read books with strong similarities BECAUSE of the similarities. :D

So all in all, with this post getting extremely long because I like to ramble, I say just keep writing. If you are worried about the book of Shaldu and it's series being too close to someone else's book, finish writing it, and then go back. You might be really surprised by how wonderfully a good rewrite can change a book for the better. And I aught to know on that point. ;D

Good Luck, Jake!!!


Writer4Christ said...

May I take the advice from this and put it in my own blog post? (lol, copying, unoriginality...)
I think that another way to be original is to find your unique voice.

Brian McBride said...

This is such a great article and it sums up something that I've been mulling over in my mind for weeks. In fact, I wrote a similar article on my own blog. :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I've had problems with that too. I love this one author, and he just writes these fantastic, original books. And sometimes I find myself trying to copy it. Then I stop and think, and rewrite or rethink that certain situation, and put myself in that situation, and I usually think of something better than that first copied idea. But it's so hard not to even subconsciously copy of an idea from a book you've read, because it's so good!! :/

Isaac Permann said...

Same here, Jake. MY latest book that i am writing, Savage, has many similar traits as Frank Peretti's Monster does.

Just like his mine has a "monster" or in my case a "savage".

I've even been thinking about this before you wrote this post. Now I am just trying to figure out what to do....

Thanx for you input!

Clair~ said...

Basically the whole time I was reading this post, I was shouting, "AMEN, brother!"

Because I agree with everything you said. And now I am looking at *all* my written work in the past year with a very critical eye.

Wonderful insights. Thanks!

Lark said...

Haha. I'll insert my own shudder here. XP I've read one Amish romance book, and that's one too many.
I feel as though I'm pretty good at originality... and then I'll read a book and be like, "Darn! I thought of that first!" Such was a case of the 3rd novel in the Hunger Games trilogy. The name Cressida, I thought, was mine and mine alone. Oh, well. She published it and I didn't, so I guess she won.
But the truth is, no one ever wins in the originality prize. I'm sure even great writers like Tolkien and Lewis (or even Wendelin van Draanen and Rick Riordan) got their ideas from SOMEWHERE. Keep heart, Jake!
My story right now isn't too original... I think. I mean, it's so random, you wouldn't even be able to pick apart the pieces, but if you did, you'd find a lot of concepts that are invented by others and made fun of by me. (Like the Hungry Hungry Games.)

W S George said...

And I'm just coming here from a whole day of reading tvtropes . org.

These posts too, about avoiding cliches and cliche lists are getting kind of, wait for it, cliched!

But the good thing is, it does throw the old uncomfortable light in my writing.

Also, I've had the rude surprise of coming up with a fancy name, only to find it on a map of Middle Earth.

I agree, poems & short stories rule*. That's why I stick to them :)

*ps I gave up novel writing because I realized I'm too lazy for it. I really admire you guys!